Benjamin Britten's Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate: Madness, grief and the inspiration of Noh

Britten's Curlew River, a "church parable" which is currently being performed at St Giles, Cripplegate in the City of London, was inspired by a surprise encounter on a trip the composer took to Tokyo in 1956.

I’ve just returned from the dress rehearsal of Curlew River at St Giles Cripplegate in the City of London. This moated church was originally built in the 12th century and is now enclosed by the concrete towers of the Barbican Centre.

It’s a strange island outpost but an apt setting for one of Britten’s most unusual and – I think I’m right in saying – least performed works.

It’s an opera about a mother who has lost her child. It’s sung by an all-male cast and consists of just a few characters: the mother (called ‘the madwoman’ because she is wracked by grief); the ferryman; and the traveller.

It’s a very simple story: the madwoman arrives at the bank of the Curlew River. She’s in a state of distraction and begs the ferryman, who’s dismissive of her plight, to let her come on board. In desperation, she explains she is searching for someone, and eventually the ferryman relents.

As they cross the river, the ferryman explains that this day is an important anniversary. A year ago a boy died by the Curlew River, having been abandoned by his cruel master. The boy’s tomb is now a site of pilgrimage.

As the ferryman tells the story, it becomes apparent that the boy who died is the madwoman’s son. On disembarking from the boat, she is taken to the graveside to say a prayer for his soul. At the end of the opera, the boy appears to the assembled company and blesses his mother.

Britten called this small-scale opera a church parable and wrote it to be performed in Orford church near his home at Aldeburgh. The first production was in 1964, but the idea for Curlew River had been planted in the composer’s mind eight years earlier – in Tokyo.

On a world tour with his partner Peter Pears in 1956, Britten had stopped off in Japan and seen a fifteenth century Noh play called Sumidagawa or The Sumida River.

Britten’s first reaction to the play was to laugh. As Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke points out, Britten may have found the distinctive warbling of the singers reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s Eccles in The Goon Show.

But Britten’s initial embarrassment was supplanted by deep interest. It was clear to him that his experience of the Noh play would form the basis for a work of his own.

Before he could get round to it, however, there were other projects to tackle – in particular the War Requiem, an incredibly elaborate choral work commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After its completion he sought a change of direction and Curlew River provided the outlet.

Like Sumidagawa, Curlew River has a small number of soloists and a chorus. Like the Noh play, it is sung by an all-male cast, wearing masks and acting the story through sparse, stylized movements. The libretto of Curlew River was closely based on an English translation of Sumidagawa; and Britten used flute, drums and bells to inflect the score with the air of Japanese music.

This, however, is the where the comparison ends. Britten took the story of Sumidagawa and transposed it to the East Anglian fenlands. He also framed the story as a medieval mystery play, and replaced the Buddhist reference points with Christian ones. Monks enter the church singing a plainsong chant and the abbot, at their head, announces that they are going to act out a story.

As the monks remove their habits and disperse about the stage, the three main characters emerge: the madwoman, the ferryman and the traveller. In this production, they are played by Ian Bostridge, Mark Stone and Neal Davies, and directed by Netia Jones.

On paper, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Curlew River is difficult to stage. It’s not big enough for an opera house and tricky to pull off in a theatre. It’s a bizarre fusion of mystery play and Noh play, and comes with a wodge of notes by the first director Colin Graham, prescribing rules for how it should be performed.

But in Netia Jones’ interpretation, which pays no heed to past productions and concentrates purely on the emotional core of the story, the opera feels startling resonant and true.

It’s extraordinary that Britten should have written a work of such power based on a Japanese play which he could hardly have understood as he was watching it. But perhaps this is the experience he intends us to have in the audience of Curlew River. The characters are like abstract cut outs – open to interpretation, almost like vessels to be filled by the voices of the singers, shapes onto which we can project our imaginations.

The director Netia Jones suggests this idea to us by projecting monochrome film footage onto a blank, white stage. The madwoman, dressed in a long black robe, appears neither male nor female: she simply represents a figure of grief, rather than a character in any realistic sense. Ian Bostridge’s tall, ethereal physical presence intensifies the effect; you completely forget that he is a man playing a woman’s role.

The fact that the story is being acted out by monks who are themselves played by singers implicates the audience in the drama all the more fully. By recognizing that the drama is just a construction we are, conversely, more aware of its connection to real life.

Very little actually happens in the opera, but the relationships between the characters are closely observed. It takes a long time for the madwoman to persuade the ferryman to give her a place in his boat. He enjoys ridiculing her crazy behaviour and mocking her pretensions.

While the ferryman is unmoved by the madwoman’s condition, the traveller is more immediately responsive to her plight, and the chorus, who represent the other passengers, are easily swayed in either direction. Only when it’s revealed that the dead boy is the madwoman’s son does the ferryman show pity and lead her to the boy’s grave.

As the ferryman turns to makes preparations for the return crossing and the other passengers proceed with their journeys, there is a horrifying moment when it seems that the fragile bonds of sympathy that have developed between the characters will once more evaporate, leaving the madwoman to contend with her grief alone.

The ferryman hasn’t time to stop for long before making the return journey. The traveller is (as he tells us) continually on the move. Even the characters themselves will shortly revert to being monks and turn their backs on the story they’ve just brought to life. But the madwoman has nowhere to turn. She remains on stage and in our imaginations, calling for our sympathies. 

Britten’s first church parable does not offer us Christian consolation, despite its ending. It allows us to experience the rush of hope in the madwoman’s heart as her child is heard faintly singing. But the child’s benediction is not echoed in the music. The plainsong that closes the opera is exactly the same as the chant we hear at the beginning.

Are we to be left with this disturbing feeling of circularity? Perhaps. But perhaps a change has occurred in the audience’s minds. The effect of Curlew River is to heighten our sensitivity and enlarge our sympathies, not just for the plight of the madwoman but for the people she represents.

Curlew River will be performed as part of the Barbican Britten Festival in London on 14 - 16 November.

Curlew River is also the subject of a Radio 4 programme, produced by Isabel Sutton, on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30 on 19 November. The programme is a Just Radio production.

St Giles, Cripplegate, between the Brutalist towers of the Barbican Estate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder